The guilty men of Brexit, Churchill, Boris Johnson, and the “bullseye of disaster”

The xenophobia during the EU referendum campaign was loathsome.

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In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum I considered publishing a special issue of the magazine in which, in a series of specially commissioned signed essays, we would indict the guilty men of Brexit. As I’ve said before, I am no ardent Brussels-phile but the referendum campaign had appalled us. David Cameron’s carelessness and insouciance in calling and leading such a wretched campaign and then walking away from the consequences of his actions disgusted us.

We despised the narcissism and game-playing of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, newspaper columnists masquerading as statesmen. The xenophobia of the right-wing press and Nigel Farage had been loathsome. The Remain campaign had been little better, from the fear-mongering of the Treasury to the lacklustre performance of Jeremy Corbyn.

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The inspiration for the issue would be Guilty Men, the celebrated polemic written by Michael Foot, Frank Owen and Peter Howard and published in July 1940 under the pseudonym Cato, named after the Roman senator and historian. The three authors were all employed by Lord Beaverbrook, a Conservative and appeaser, hence the desire for anonymity. Cato’s 15 guilty men included Neville Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin and Lord Halifax. Their appeasement of Hitler had led to the Dunkirk catastrophe. Our guilty men would have been Cameron, Johnson, Gove, Farage, Duncan Smith, Corbyn, and so on.

In the end, we published an issue featuring a brilliant André Carrilho cover illustration of Boris Johnson with an elongated nose, the chosen line for which was “The Brexit lies”. But the idea of writing something more ambitious about the Brexit debacle – the viciousness of the campaign, the lies and distortions, the divisions it exacerbated and revealed – nagged at me.

I even discussed with my agent, Andrew Gordon, writing a short book, a contemporary reworking of Guilty Men for the age of Brexit. “You’ll have to write it quickly, by the end of the summer,” he said. I didn’t have the stamina for such an undertaking but I hoped another writer might and said so in a column. Someone must have been listening because last week a book about Brexit called Guilty Men by “Cato the Younger”, published by Iain Dale’s enterprising and nimble Biteback operation, landed on my desk.  

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The original Guilty Men opens with an impassioned account of the retreat from Dunkirk: “How was it . . . that the bravest sons of Britain ever came to be placed in such jeopardy?” Cato the Younger’s version begins more prosaically with a short summary of the original book with which it shares a title before it moves on to the beaches of Kos in Greece and the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War. From there, it recounts how Britain came to join the European Economic Community and how the conditions for Brexit were created.

It is not written with the swagger and literary flair of the Michael Foot original: after all, Foot was a belletrist as well as a politician and newspaper editor, a passionate student of the Romantics, especially of Byron and Hazlitt. But it makes its case forcefully as it indicts for the five sins of deceit, distortion, personal gain, failures of leadership and hubris 13 men and two women, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, who is damned because of her “inflexibility on freedom of movement”. (I suppose the title Guilty Men and Women would not have been so euphonious.)

In the concluding chapter, or “envoi” as the author prefers, there is an expression of defiance: “We will come through and we will thrive.” But the final note is long and plangent, a lament for what is described as a diminished sense of European fellowship, “perhaps for ever”. For ever is a long time, of course, but you get the point.

Guilty Men sold more than 50,000 copies in a few weeks and 200,000 by the end of 1940. “No tract on foreign policy since Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace in 1919 . . . had so decisively seared itself into the public consciousness,” wrote John Stevenson in his introduction to the Penguin edition. Cato the Younger’s “Brexit Edition” is unlikely to be a best­seller – Britain is not existentially threatened by fascism, after all – but its central idea is a good one (I had it myself!) and one wishes the pseudonymous author or authors well.

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While we are on the theme of Brexit, here are some more variations. David Davis, who used to say that striking a free trade deal with the EU27 would be straightforward because the Germans would be so desperate to sell us their cars and the French their cheese and wine, has now said that the Brexit negotiations are as “complicated as the moon landings”. Andrew Adonis, speaking in the Lords, has called Brexit “a hard-right nationalist policy”. The diarist and theatre critic Tim Walker uses the neologism “Brexshit”. Nick Clegg has asked, rhetorically, if any of us remember the time when we were promised an “easy Brexit”. And the Labour MP Mike Gapes has suggested we are heading for a “Wrexit crash”.      

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Dunkirk and the failure of the Norwegian campaign opened the way for Winston Churchill to become prime minister and for the creation of the wartime coalition in which Clement Attlee served with such distinction. Today, in our age of illusion, there is no Churchill waiting on the Tory benches to replace the humiliated Theresa May. Compared to Churchill, Boris Johnson (for all his glorified Churchillian self-image) is a huckster and a popinjay, whose character flaws render him unfit to be foreign secretary, least of all prime minister. Churchill said that Chamberlain and the appeasers had led Britain to “the bullseye of disaster”. Something similar could be said of Johnson and of our present predicament. Guilty men, indeed.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania